Running start

Baroness Campbell of Loughborough argues for the crucial importance of quality early-years physical education in building a love for sport

As another action-packed summer of sport draws to a close, with many highs and some lows, I am drawn to reflect upon the achievements of the young talent in our country. It has been my privilege as the Chair of UK Sport and of the Youth Sport Trust to see what a difference a positive experience in sport makes to young people’s lives at all levels, from exceptionally talented performers through to all young children eager to be active in physical education and school sport.

Many young athletes ‘came of age’ this summer, including hockey players Georgie Twigg and Lily Owsley, who claimed silver medals at the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games. I’ve no doubt that their incredible performances, along with many others, will have captivated and inspired thousands of young people across the country.

With the Commonwealth Games over for another four years, the next high-profile sporting event gets underway in Manchester from 4-7 September for over 1,600 of the most talented young athletes across the UK. The Sainsbury’s 2014 School Games is a major multi-sport event delivered by the Youth Sport Trust with National Lottery funding from Sport England.

Just like the Commonwealth Games, the Sainsbury’s School Games has a fully inclusive para-sport programme. Many British athletes have used the annual event as a springboard to international success, including Georgie and Lily along with Paralympians Ellie Simmonds, Jonnie Peacock and Hannah Cockroft to name but a few. In fact, over 150 former School Games competitors were part of Glasgow 2014 with 59 athletes claiming 84 medals for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. This was a marvellous achievement, and one which augurs well for British performances in the future.

A number of independent school pupils are among those competing in Manchester, including some rising stars from hockey and fencing, all hoping to bring home a medal after months of preparation. Athletes with high expectations on their shoulders include 18-year-old fencer Harrison Nichols, from Redhill and Reigate Club, who has clinched the title of British Youth Champion four times already, and 17-year-old Philip Slater from Lisburn, who is ranked No.1 in the Irish, Senior, Junior and Cadet standings.

Along with the fencers are hockey stars such as Lucy Inglis from Earlston High School on the Scottish Borders and Hannah Cozens from Millfield School in Somerset. Both have already achieved so much at the tender age of 17: Lucy has been selected for the under-18 2014 Scotland squad, while Hannah was one of the youngest players on the Wales Under-18 team to compete in the first-ever age group European Championships.

While reflecting on the recent success in Scotland and on the future successes that await those attending the Sainsbury’s School Games, we should be mindful of the huge importance of a really positive sporting start in the first few years at school.

As children develop, they should learn physical literacy – the skills of movement, agility, balance and co-ordination. It is essential that their school experience teaches and improves these core transferable skills so that they can apply and adapt them across a range of sports as they progress through school, gaining confidence as they grow. I believe it is essential that a young person’s appetite for an active lifestyle is developed early – and the best way to do this is by providing a high quality PE experience.

Competitive sport at school level can be a key factor in developing a range of life skills amongst young people and many develop a thirst to achieve at the highest level. However, it’s important for schools to balance this with a high-quality PE curriculum and opportunities to participate in a range of different health-promoting activities that will engage and inspire all young people.

A recent Ofsted report, ‘Going the extra mile’, looked at the levels of competitive sport offered in independent and state schools. There may be some differences, but overall we know that where schools value what school sport can offer, there is a growing body of evidence to show a clear correlation to academic achievement, greater personal confidence and sense of self worth.

Not everyone can be or even wants to be a sporting champion, but all young people should have the opportunity and be inspired to enjoy sport or physical activity in whatever form they choose. The young talent that we have witnessed throughout the summer simply wouldn’t be there today without a strong foundation in those core physical literacy skills and the support to achieve their personal best.

Teachers, PE and sport professionals and volunteers all have an essential role to play. The challenge now is to ensure that all young people are given a high-quality PE and sport experience while they are at school, which inspires and equips them to get moving for life.

Baroness Campbellof Loughborough CBE is Chair of UK Sport and of the Youth Sport Trust, an independent charity devoted to changing young people’s lives through sport.

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